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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Houston Texans
Kamal Martin came off IR and immediately made an impact on the Packers on Sunday.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

From quarterback to quarterback of the defense, Kamal Martin’s background pays off

Injuries on Sunday forced rookie Kamal Martin into playing a position he barely practiced. But the young, athletic linebacker thrived, thanks in part to his background diagnosing and attacking from the other side of the ball.

Kamal Martin is used to figuring it out on the fly. At Burnsville High outside Minneapolis, Martin played safety and quarterback, a raw, wiry strong player, the kind of athlete high school programs put under center because they’re the most gifted guys on the field, not because they’re on track to be Patrick Mahomes. That was Martin, a three-star recruit who made all-state in Minnesota mostly thanks to his safety play. Still, his quarterback background served him well, first as a prep star and then at the University of Minnesota. That spatial awareness, intelligence, and read-and-react ability are already evident just one game into his pro career in Green Bay.

“I don’t think any schools were seriously considering him at quarterback coming out of high school but they knew he was really, really physically gifted,” explains Quincy Avery, Owner/President of QB Takeover.

Avery worked with Martin as a high school player as Martin tried to refine his skill as the signal caller.

“It was more about his work ethic. [He was] someone who hadn’t really trained to play the quarterback position, would just kind of figure it out on his own and was willing to do the work to get there by himself. He was willing to do whatever it took to get better for his team.”

Listen to Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, Martin’s coach in college, describe his former pupil. It sounds like a quarterback scouting report.

“He studies really hard, and then he’s intelligent. And he has some instinctive attributes that maybe some other guys don’t in terms of recognizing plays and diagnosing plays. He’s a quick processor,” Rossi says.

In fact, he was willing to support the thesis outright, and succinctly.

“The characteristics that make a successful quarterback, which is intelligence, which is processing speed, which is film study, which is the ability to see things and diagnose things and make quick decisions, those are the same attributes that make a really talented inside linebacker.”

A great first impression

Against the Texans, Martin thrived in his NFL debut precisely because he wasn’t overwhelmed by information despite his lack of experience, as injuries to Christian Kirksey and Krys Barnes pushed the impressive rookie on the field. Martin showed promise in training camp, making a run to start and putting together one of the best camps of any player on defense before a knee injury forced him to injured reserve. Activated ahead of the Texans game, Martin saw the field right away, bringing his brand of physical, instinctive play to the Packers and leading the team in solo tackles.

“Obviously, there’s some things to clean up. I don’t think he practiced at the ‘Mike’ very much all week,” Matt LaFleur said of Martin on Monday.

“Anytime you put a player in the position, that hadn’t had the reps, especially a young player, that’s a pretty difficult position to be in. But I was happy with a lot of the things he did.”

Martin opened the game at the Will linebacker spot alongside fellow rookie surprise Krys Barnes, but slid over when Barnes also went down with an injury. Avery insists the quarterback background with its requisite mentality set Martin on a course to be able to handle such responsibility without practice.

“Having that quarterback background makes you have to be aware of what everyone is doing in terms of the puzzle pieces fitting together in order to understand the scheme of the offense,” Avery explains. “I’m sure if you asked him what each of the linebackers are doing on each call, he’d be able to describe to you in great detail exactly what it is they want them to do.”

Instincts and aggressiveness combine

At Minnesota, Rossi recognized those traits in Martin, pointing to his work ethic combined with his instincts as a main driver to the young linebacker’s instinctive play. The “quarterback of the defense” concept may be cliché, but Rossi insists it fits for a reason.

“Quarterback’s gotta have a feeling for the big picture and everything that’s going on. The best defensive players, especially linebackers, they know how the front’s playing, they know how the back end is playing and it helps them play it better.”

Martin’s intelligence and thoughtful personality radiates in his personality. Speaking to reporters, the 22-year-old gives off a sense of maturity belied by his age, much like his soft-spoken delivery gives no hints he plays the game “with bad intentions,” as Avery interjects to a question asking about this duality. He tells a story of seeing Martin in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl where Avery and his star pupil Deshaun Watson were hanging out.

“I happened to see him out and he’s all shy and nervous asking Deshaun for a picture, then in the game, he’s trying to take his head off.”

For his reserved personality off the field, the former honorable mention All-Big Ten performer proudly describes his physical, aggressive play between the lines.

“I’ve always been a fan of the physical side of the football game. I feel like that’s one of the reasons we fall in love of the game, because there’s nothing like it,” Martin said after he was drafted. “There’s nothing like that physical side where you truly get to punish opponents, especially in the cold.”

Martin will get plenty of chances to bring the thunder in his shoulder pads for cold weather games, but physicality comes with the job description at linebacker. Knowing when and where to fire his guns, must be the foundation. That’s where the film study and football IQ come into play.

That’s not to say Martin played a perfect game. He hadn’t played a live game since last November and wasn’t truly healthy for any significant stretch going back to 2018, as Brian Gutekunst pointed out his post-draft press conference. LaFleur believes that comfort level will come with more time.

“He’s a big, physical presence out there,” LaFleur said. “Just need to get him more work, more reps in practice, to get him comfortable so he knows what he’s doing at all times. I see a guy with a lot of playmaking ability. Really encouraged by what Kamal did yesterday.”

Turning the tables

Much like his quarterback training, Martin played Sunday by instinct, trying to work out in real time exactly what it takes to play the position. Avery says the mental side of playing quarterback is no different than being the quarterback of the defense as the name implies.

“You have to be diagnosing those little things, those little tendencies, just the way someone is leaning or pre-snap alignment and being able to have all that knowledge readily available to you really, really quickly.”

In other words, the mindset instilled by being a quarterback pays off, as Martin understands how one thinks, what they’re keying, and how they process information.

“We talk about it in terms of playing chess, being able to manipulate [the defense] to get what you want on offense. I’m sure he’s able to take some carryover from that now in terms of understanding what quarterbacks are trying to do, what they’re looking at, what they’re seeing and what they’re anticipating.”

Christian Kirksey and Barnes returned to practice Wednesday, which means Martin may not be back out on the field Sunday against the Vikings. On the other hand, while he may not be a gregarious personality, his play speaks for itself and it’s screaming to get on the field. The Packers have been trying to upgrade the linebacker spot going back to the selection of A.J. Hawk, a year after they drafted Aaron Rodgers. There would be some fitting symmetry if Gutekunst found the quarterback of the future and the defense in the same draft.

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